The clamour of voices calling for “African solutions to African problems” has grown ever louder of late. As African journalists, this means telling our own stories, instead of having the continent reflected back to our readership through Western news agencies. But, in all this talk and theorising, something gets lost: We forget to take notice of people and organisations who are trying to do just that. Enter Salim Amin and A24 Media's “What's Your Story” project. By THERESA MALLINSON.
“What’s Your Story” is the latest venture of A24 Media, which Salim Amin co-founded with Asif Sheik in 2008 as an online video news agency for African content. This project was an extension of his father’s work at CameraPix, in which Amin and Sheikh both still play an executive role. Thus, the story behind the genesis of “What’s Your Story” comprises several other stories – fitting for a website that intends to provide a platform for the many stories of Africa.
Amin’s father was, of course, the legendary East African photojournalist Mohamed “Mo” Amin, who founded CameraPix in 1963 when he was just 20 years old. He died, tragically, in the hijacking of Ethiopian Airlines flight 961 in November 2006. In between, Amin senior covered a multitude of independence day celebrations, coups and civil wars in Africa, brought the 1984 Ethiopian famine to global attention and was awarded an MBE, among numerous other accolades.
Salim Amin begins his award-winning documentary, “Mo and Me”, by narrating: “For the last 10 years I have been on a journey to emerge from the shadows of a man who appeared to me, quite often, larger than life. Looking back now I can see it was all necessary, for me, him, and the work he had dedicated his life to.” And Amin junior’s work is not merely a continuation of his father’s work, but an extension. As well as taking over the reins at CameraPix, he founded the Mohamed Amin Foundation, to train young African journalists in television and film, in 1998 and A24 Media in 2008.
“The reason we started it was we felt there was a large gap in the market for good African content. It was not easily available; there was really no place for people to find it. They really didn’t have a place where they could find quality content, as well as content that had been verified by a reputable news source,” Amin says.
Today, A24 Media partners with Al Jazeera and the BBC, among others. There are more than 2,000 features available from 40 countries. Crucial to A24 Media’s philosophy, is paying its contributors decently, and fairly, for their work – a welcome move for African freelance journalists who perennially struggle to make ends meet. “[We wanted to] try to improve the lot of African freelance journalists on the continent – to give them a platform to showcase their work, to give them a connection with possible clients who would be interested in their work. I found it was always a problem for freelancers to maximise the revenue in African and globally,” says Amin. “We have a unique model in that we give 60% of revenue back to the contributors and, more importantly, they maintain copyright.”
As with any start-up, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. “It’s been a challenging set-up. It’s not easy with new media – things change all the time, you really have to get yourself established,” says Amin. “I think we’re slowly getting there. We’ve got a lot of international partners, a lot of African broadcasters that pick up our content. A lot of the struggle has been getting ourselves known as content aggregators, not content producers.”
Amin’s latest venture, “What’s Your Story”, was born out of A24 Media’s experiences on the continent. “We spent three years establishing our reliability and credibility in delivering professional content, and we realised we were not really catering to the people on this continent, or Africans in diaspora. There was not really an area or a space where people could come, talk, comment and give their opinion about some of the stories around what’s happening in Africa.” Amin says. “Everywhere I’ve gone and travelled on the continent to promote A24 Media and Pan-African Media, I’ve always been asked this question: Why should someone in Nigeria be interested in Nairobi; why should someone in Joburg be interested in Juba? What are the connections we have? We have many different histories, philosophies, backgrounds. Where can we connect this identity?”
Photo: Salim Amin.
The answer, dispiritingly enough, is in the many challenges Africa faces. “One of the things that does connect us all are our problems. So we wanted to give people a space wherein they could talk about these problems, where they could give their personal experiences, share their videos, their thoughts – hoping through this process that there would be solutions they can find. Perhaps they can share these and this message can spread,” Amin says.
It’s for this reason that corruption, governance, health and media freedom are the four central focus areas around which “What’s Your Story” is asking people to share their experiences. “It’s a lot of the negative, but through all this, I think there are ways success stories of dealing with these problems have been told,” Amin says. “But again, there’s a lack of information flying between Africans. We don’t really know each other really well. I know Facebook and Twitter do these things, but this is an African site.”
Since its launch on 21 June, “What’s Your Story” has had more than 1,900 visits, with 23 people uploading their stories or comments. “The response has been fair, but it can only get better from here,” says Natasha Kahiu who, along with Wendy Gacheri and Angeline Wanjeri, comprise the editorial team. “The challenge we currently have is creating awareness about us in the rest of Africa. How do we let other Africans know that this is just not about Kenya because we are based here? We want to know what every African has to say – because one thing we share in Africa are problems.”
Kahiu picked out a picture and caption uploaded by an anonymous user from Nigeria as one of the particularly noteworthy additions to the site so far. “Corruption needs to be routed out of our society” reads the headline; the caption: “Corruption has been a thorn in the flesh when it comes to development in our mother land. I got here a pic of the vice. Thanks to your site it provides a platform to vent.” The picture shows a transaction between police officers and a motorcyclist – presumably paying a bribe. “The best part … is it is not your everyday picture you would see in news and I admired the courage the contributor had to take the picture,” says Kahiu. “The image will encourage others to put corruption in the limelight, and we hope someone (African governments) will listen and act on it.”
Currently “What’s Your Story” doesn’t offer the most user-friendly experience. It’s easy enough to upload your video, picture, story or comment, and it’s great to be able to do so without the hassle of creating a profile. However, the downside is you don’t feel a connection to the site – there’s no immediate sense of belonging to a community.
The website has chosen to allow anonymous contributions, understandably enough, given the perils of freely speaking your mind in many African countries. Amin says: “We want to encourage people to come out and feel safe enough, because we’re assuming a lot of people are talking about things that they’re known for in their communities, so we wanted to give them that option for remaining anonymous.” But because there aren’t user profiles (which could be created using pseudonyms, for example), it detracts from the sense of a virtual community that the website is attempting to create. It’s easier to engage with questions and posts if the people behind them have a handle – even if it’s not their real name.
It’s early days yet though, and the site can be tweaked once the “What’s Your Story” team has gained feedback from its users. As part of the A24 Media stable, the website does have some time to find its feet. “Funding comes from the company for this,” Amin says. “We are hoping that traffic to ‘What’s Your Story’ will generate interest in the content we are marketing and this will bring in additional revenue. Plus, if the audience numbers get large enough, we may be able to attract some advertising revenue.”
“What’s Your Story’s” Pan-Africanist ambitions may come across as idealistic, but make no mistake, Amin is a shrewd businessman too. If content submitted to “What’s Your Story” is of a high enough quality, it can also be posted on the A24 Media portal. “We’ve taken a little bit of inspiration from iReporter on CNN,” he says. “If the content is good enough, it’s a good enough story, and if [the contributor] is interested in running something, then of course we will make that [option] accessible to them. We’ll share revenue with [the contributor], and give them money for it – unlike iReporter and others.”
It’s too early to predict whether “What’s Your Story” will have a significant impact on the African media and social-networking landscape, but the experience, passion, entrepreneurial spirit and business sense of the people behind it combine to give the portal a good crack at success. We can’t wait to find out just what the story is in a year’s time. DM
"The world doesn't make sense so why should I paint pictures that do?" ~ Pablo Picasso